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The Lost Sheep
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 22 from Notes on the Parables of our Lord
Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7 
The words with which the three parables of the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke are introduced, ‘Then drew near unto Him all the publicans and sinners for to hear Him,’ must not be too rigidly understood.  The Evangelist is describing what at this time was the prevailing feature of Christ’s ministry (cf. Mark 2:15; Luke 7:37), namely, that, as by a secret attraction, it drew the outcasts of the nation to Him and to His word.  Of these ‘publicans and sinners,’ the first were men infamous among their countrymen by their very occupation; the second, such as, till awakened by Him to repentance and amendment of life, had been notorious transgressors of God’s holy law (Luke vii. 39).  These He did not repel, as one that feared pollution from their touch; but received them graciously, taught them freely, and lived in familiar intercourse with them.  At this the Scribes and Pharisees murmured and took offence.  They could better have understood a John Baptist fleeing to the wilderness, separating himself from sinners in the whole outward manner of his life, as well as inwardly in his spirit.  And this outward separation may have been needful for those who would preserve their purity in those times of the law, and until He came, who brought powers of good to bear upon the world’s evil far mightier than ever had been brought before.  Hitherto it may have been the wisdom of those who knew themselves predisposed to the infection to flee from the infected; but He was the Physician who boldly sought out these, that He health might overcome their disease, His righteousness their sin.  But this seeking out and not shunning sinners was just what the Scribes and Pharisees could not understand.  They had neither loe to hope the rcovery of such, nor medicines to effect that recovery; to hope the recovery of such, nor medicines to effect that recovery; nor yet antidotes to preserve themselves while making the attempt. 

An earlier expression of their discontent had called out those significant worlds, ‘They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’(Lk v. 30); and now their later murmurings are the motive of the three parables which follow.  In all of these Christ would shame these murmurers, holding up to them the angels of God, and God Himself, rejoicing at the conversion of a sinner; and contrasting this liberal joy of heaven with the narrow discontent and envious repinings of earth.  Heaven and its holy inhabitants welcomed the penitent; only his fellow-sinners kept him proudly aloof, as though there had been defilement for them in his touch; as though they were wronged if he were freely forgiven. 

But this is not all.  Not merely was there joy in heaven over the penitent sinner, but more joy over one such than over ninety-nine such as themselves.  The good that might be in them He does not deny.  Many among them, no doubt, had a zeal for God, were following after righteousness such as they knew it, a righteousness according to the law.  But if now that a higher righteousness was revealed, - a righteousness by faith, the new life of the Gospel, - they obstinately refuse to participate in it, then such as would receive this life from Him, however widely in times past they might have departed from God, should now be brought infinitely nearer to Him than themselves; as the one sheep was brought home to the house, while the ninety and nine abode in the wilderness; as for the prodigal a fatted calf was slain, while the elder brother had never received so much as a kid (ver. 29).  Nay, they are bidden at last to beware lest the spirit which they are allowing should exclude them altogether from that new kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, into which they, no less than the publicans and sinners, were invited freely to enter. 

Of the three parables in this chapter, the two earlier set forth to us mainly the seeking love of God; while the third describes rather the rise and growth, responsive to that love, of repentance in the heart of man.  The same truth is thus presented successively under different aspects, - God’s seeking love being set forth first, since all first motions towards good are from Him, yet it is the same truth in all; for it is the confluence of these two streams, of this drawing and seeking love from without, and of faith by this awakened from within, of the objective grace and the subjective faith, out of which repentance springs.  And thus the parables together constitute a perfect and harmonious whole.  The first two speak nothing of a changed heart and mind toward God; nor, indeed, would the images of a wandering sheep and a lost piece of money give room for this; the last speaks only of this change, and nothing of the antecedent working of the spirit of God in the heart, the goings forth of His power and love, which yet must have found the wanderer before he could ever have found himself, or found his God.  These parables are thus a trilogy, which again is divided into two and one; St. Luke himself distinctly marking the break and the new beginning which at verse 11 finds place. 

There are other inner harmonies and relations between them.  Thus there is a seeming anti-climax in the numbers, - one in a hundred, - one in ten, - one in two; which is a real climax, as the sense of the value of the lost would increase with the larger proportion which it bore to the whole.  And other human feelings and interests are involved in the successive narratives, which enhance in each successive case the anxiety for the recovery of that which is in danger of perishing.  The possessor of a hundred sheep is in some sort a rich man, therefore not likely to feel their diminution by one at all so deeply as the woman who, having but ten small pieces of money, should lose one of these [The Lost Piece of Money]; while the intensity of her feeling would fall very short of the affection of a father, who, having but two sons should behold one out of these two go astray.  Thus we find ourselves moving in ever narrower, and so ever intenser, circles of hope and fear and love, drawing in each successive parable nearer to the innermost centre and heart of the truth. 

So also in each successive case we may see shadowed forth on man’s part a deeper guilt, and thus on God’s part a mightier grace.  In the first parable the guilt implied is the smallest.  The sinner is set forth under the image of a silly wandering sheep.  It is only one side of the truth, but yet a most real one, that sin is oftentimes an ignorance; nay, in a greater or lesser degree it is always such (Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17; I Tim 1:13); the sinner knows not what he does, and if in one aspect he deserves wrath, in another he challenges pity.  He is a sheep that has gone astray, oftentimes ere it knew what it was doing, ere it had even learned that it had a shepherd, or belonged to a fold.  But there are others, set forth under the lost money, who knowing themselves to be God’s, with His image stamped on their souls, even the image of the Great King, do yet throw themselves away, renounce their high birth, and willfully lose themselves in the world.  Their sin is greater; but a sin worse even than theirs is behind, - the sin of the prodigal.  To have tasted something of the love of God, to have known Him, not as our King who has stamped us with His image, but as our Father, of whose family we are; and to have despised that love, and forsaken that house – this is the crowning guilt; and yet the grace of God is sufficient to forgive even this sin, and to bring back this wanderer to Him. 

With so much of introduction, we may proceed to consider these parables one by one; and the first this of the Lost Sheep.  ‘What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it?’  There is a peculiar fitness in this image as addressed to the spiritual rulers of the Jewish people.  They too were shepherds; continually charged, rebuked, warned, under this very title (Ezek. 34; Zech. 11:16); under-shepherds of Him who sets forth His own watchful tenderness for His people by the same image (Isa. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:12; 37:24; Zech. 13:7; cf. Ps. 23:1; 80:1); - yet, not only were they no seekers of the lost, no bringers back of the strayed, no binders-up of the broken, but they murmured against Him, ‘the Shepherd of Israel,’ the ‘great Shepherd of the sheep,’ because He did in His own person, what they, His deputies, so long had neglected to do, making good Himself all these omissions of theirs.  In might at first sight appear as though the shepherd were caring for the one sheep strayed at the hazard of all the others, leaving as he does them, the ‘ninety and nine in the wilderness.’  But ‘the wilderness’ here is no sandy or rocky desert, the haunt of wild beasts or of wandering robber hordes; rather wide, extended grassy plains, steppes of savannahs, called ‘desert’ because without habitations of men, but exactly the fittest place for the pasture of sheep.  Thus we read in St. John, (vi. 10) that ‘there was much grass’ in a place which by St. Matthew is called ‘desert’ (xiv. 15); and we commonly attach to ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ in Scripture, images of far more uniform barrenness and desolation than the reality would warrant.  Parts, it is true, of the larger deserts of Palestine or Arabia are as desolate as can be imagined, though as much from rock as from sandy levels; yet on the whole they offer far more variety of scenery, much wider extents of fertile, or at least grassy land, than is commonly supposed.  We must understand then that the residue of the flock are left in their ordinary and safe pasturage, while the shepherd goes in search of the one which has strayed. 

In the order of things natural, a sheep which could wander away from, could also wander back to the fold.  But it is not so with a sheep of God’s pasture.  Such can lose, but it cannot find itself again.  This is in sin a centrifugal tendency, and the wanderings of this wanderer could be only further and further away.  If, therefore, it shall be found at all, this can only be by its Shepherd’s going to seek it; else, being once lost, it is lost forever.  The Incarnation of the Son of God was a girding of Himself for such a task as this; His whole life in the days of His flesh a following of the strayed.  And He was not weary with the greatness of the way; He shrank not when the thorns wounded His flesh and tore His feet; He followed us into the deep of our misery, came under the uttermost of our malediction; for He had gone forth to seek His own, ‘till He had found it.’  And ‘when He hath found it,’ how tenderly does the shepherd of the parable handle that sheep which has cost him all this toil; he does not smite, nor even harshly drive it back to the fold; nay, he does not deliver it to an underling; but ‘layeth it on his shoulders,’ – on his ‘own’ shoulders – a delicate touch, which our Translation has let go, - and bears it home.  We recognize in this an image of the sustaining grace of Christ, which does not cease, till His rescued are made partakers of final salvation.  But when some make much of the weariness which this load must have caused to the Shepherd, seeing here an allusion to His sufferings, ‘who bare our sins in His own body’ (I Pet. 2:24), upon whom was laid the iniquity of us all, this is a missing of the true significance.  That ‘until He find it,’ has exhausted the whole story of the painfulness of His way who came in search of His lost creature; and this is now the story of His triumphant return to heaven with the trophy that He had won, the spoil which He, a mightier David, had delivered from the lion and the bear, (I Sam. 17:34, 35). 

And as the man when he reaches home ‘calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost’ – makes them sharers in his joy, as they had been sharers in his anxiety, even so shall joy be in heaven when one wanderer is brought back to the heavenly fold; for heaven and redeemed earth constitute but one kingdom, being bound together by that love which is ‘the bond of perfectness.’  ‘I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.’  Let us not in this ‘I say unto you,’ miss a slight yet majestic intimation of the dignity of his person; ‘I who know – I who, when I tell you of heavenly things, tell you of mine own (John 1:51; 3:11), announce to you this.’  The joy, we may observe, is still in the future; ‘joy shall be in heaven;’ and this consistently with the tacit assumption of the Good Shepherd’s part of his own; for not yet had He risen and ascended, leading ‘captivity captive,’ bringing with Him His rescued and redeemed. 

Were this all, there would be nothing to perplex; but it is not merely joy over one penitent, but joy over this one ‘more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.’  Now we can easily understand how, among men, there should be more joy for a small part which has been in jeopardy, than for the continued secure possession of a much larger portion.  It is as when the mother concentrates for the moment all her affection on her sick, seeming to a bystander to love none but that only; and actually rejoicing at the recovery of that one more than at the uninterrupted health of all the others.  Or, to use Augustine’s beautiful words, 

‘What then takes place in the soul, when it is more delighted at finding or recovering the things it loves, than if it had ever had them?  Yea and other things witness hereunto, and all things are full of witnesses, crying out, “So it is.”  The conquering commander triumpheth; yet had not conquered, unless he had fought, and the more peril there was in battle, so much the more joy is there in the triumph.  The storm tosses the sailors, threatens shipwreck; all wax pale at approaching death; sky and sea are calmed, and they are exceeding joyed, as having been exceeding afraid.  A friend is sick, and his pulse threatens danger; all who long for his recovery are sick in mind with him.  He is restored, though as yet he walks not with his former strength, yet there is such joy as was not when before he walked sound and strong.’   

Yet whence arises the disproportionate joy?  Clearly from the temporary uncertainty which existed about the result.  But no such uncertainty could find place with Him, who knows the end from the beginning; whose joy needs not to be enhanced by a fear going before.  As little with Him need the earnest love for the perilled one, as in the case of the mother and her children, throw into the background, even for the moment, the love and care for the others; so that the analogies and illustrations drawn from this world of ours supply no adequate solution of the difficulty. 

And further, how can it be affirmed of any that they ‘need no repentance,’ since ‘all like sheep have gone astray;’ and all therefore do not quite satisfy.  We may indeed get rid both of this difficulty and the other, by seeing here an example of the Lord’s severe yet loving irony.  These ‘ninety and nine, which need no repentance,’ would then be, - like those whole who need not, or count that they need not, a physician (Matt. 9:12) – self-righteous persons; as such displeasing to God; whose present moral condition as it causes no joy in heaven, it can be nothing strange that a sinner’s conversion should occasion more gladness than the continuance of these in their evil.  But the whole structure of the parables refutes this.  The ninety and nine have not wandered, the nine pieces of money have not been lost, the elder brother has not left his father’s house.  These difficulties will only disappear when we regard these ‘righteous’ as such indeed, but their righteousness as merely legal, of the old dispensation, so that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than they.  The law had partially accomplished its work in them, restraining from grosser transgressions; and thus they needed not, like the publicans and sinners, repentance from these; but it had not accomplished all, it had not been ‘a schoolmaster to Christ,’ bringing them to see their sinfulness, and consequent need of a Saviour.  The publicans and sinners, though by another path, had come to Him; and He here pronounces that there was more real cause of joy over one of these, now entering into the inner sanctuary of faith than over ninety and nine of those other, who lingered at the legal vestibule, refusing to go further in.